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WATER WISE GARDENING
Xeriscaping and xerogardening are new buzz words in the world of Midwest gardening. They refer to landscaping and gardening practices that reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental water sources like irrigation systems. Xeriscaping is a design method that has been in use for quite some time in the southwestern US, but it is becoming a more prominent issue in the Midwest now. Xeriscaping is not eliminating plants or planting only native perennials, rather it is a way of choosing plants and designing planter beds to conserve water. Many people think of cacti when they begin thinking of plants that need little or no water, but xeriscaping offers a multitude of options to create a lush looking garden without running up the water bill.
One of the main principles of xeriscaping is amending the soil. Compost adds nutrients to the soil, breaks up clay, and adds material to planting beds that absorbs water. Mulching is also a must when planning a water wise garden. A thick layer of mulch will help insulate the soil which will retain moisture longer. Next is making sure any existing irrigation is being used efficiently. Turf should be watered with a rotary sprinkler placed on or close to the ground. The larger droplets and lower angle help water stay where it should instead of being blown by the wind. Sprinlker or soaker hoses are more efficient for trees, shrubs, and gardens. The constant flow close to the roots is easier to control. Grouping plants together by light and water needs will also help. Plants that tend to dry out more often can be planted near downspouts or in low lying areas of the yard to maximize the impact of rain and dew.
Flowers and shrubs will generally only need half the amount of water as a traditional lawn, so landscaping larger areas or replacing high traffic areas of the yard with groundcover can drastically reduce the amount of water needed to maintain the yard. Some groundcovers, like thyme and sedum, can withstand heavy foot traffic, making them perfect for grass substitutes. Ideally, any groundcover you choose should grow so densely that there is no need to mulch around the plants. This also keeps weeds from growing and provides an alternative to the yearly cycle of mulching. Drought tolerant trees and shrubs, like the Honeylocust or Blue Mist Spirea, make great anchor plants for large flower beds and provide shade and protection from the wind for less water wise plants. Native perennials are suited to the climate and do not require any adjustment period to become accustomed to being watered less often. Many native plants also naturally develop a deep root system, reducing the need to use irrigation systems. Some plants have developed mechanisms for surviving prolonged droughts. The silvery or fuzzy foliage of lavender, catmint, Russian sage, and lamb's ear to name a few reflects sunlight, reducing the amount of water lost from the plants leaves.
Xeriscaping is a wonderful and easy to apply landscaping concept that can be implemented over several years. By transforming your yard a little at a time, you can keep costs low while reducing your water usage. Often reduced maintenance and an increase in beneficial wildlife are also results of a well planned water wise garden. Below are some plant lists and tips to begin planning your own xeriscaped yard.
Yarrow, Anise Hyssop, Butterfly Weed (Milkweed), False Indigo, Coreopsis, Ice Plant, Dianthus, Coneflower, Blanket Flower, Wandflower, Daylily, Hosta, Lavendar, Lupine, Catmint, Poppy, Peony, Russian Sage, Rudbeckia, Phlox, Salvia, Sedum, Spirea, Thyme, and Vinca.
Many annual plants need watered regularly, but some like lantana, begonias, marigolds, geraniums, moss rose, vincas, and zinnias will tolerate being watered less often.
If you are having trouble finding plants you like that are also drought tolerant or resistant, use some of the following guidelines to explore your options. Plants that have thick, fleshy, waxy, or fuzzy stems or leaves retain water. Silvery or gray foliage on a plant will reflect light and allow the plant to retain more moisture. Narrow or prickly leaved plants have less surface area for water to be lost from, making them more drought tolerant.
Plants that are in the ground will stay wet longer than plants that are in pots or hanging baskets. If you have a limited space to plant or cannot plant in the ground, stacking pots inside each other to make a tiered look saves both space and water. Placing hanging baskets on the ground on windy days will keep the soil from drying out as quickly. Placing ice cubes in smaller pots as a water source instead of using a watering can can be more efficient and quicker. A soil additive called SoilMoist is also a good way to keep containers moist longer. SoilMoist is a package of water absorbing crystals that are nontoxic and can allow the existing soil to hold 3x more water.
Both annuals and perennials benefit from being watered slowly for longer periods of time rather than several short bursts throughout the day. Soaking the ground at the base of the plant will promote deep root growth, whereas shallow watering more often will promote shallow root growth and leaves the plant vulnerable to droughts and freezes. The best time to water is in the early morning because there is less chance for the water to evaporate. Water plants at the base and soak each plant individually rather than using a sprinkler if at all possible.
Plan to do digging and other physically demanding gardening tasks during the early morning hours. Even if the area you are working in is full sun, the morning sun is not as bright and intense as the afternoon sun, which will make your gardening much more pleasant. This also allows time for new plants to be watered in before the ground becomes too warm and the water begins evaporating.